The Chalk Man

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I write this in a dimly lit room, stark walls surround me, no windows. If my script is large or chaotic it is because I have left my glasses in the room next door. I allow not even a mug of water in my presence. I have discovered a myth, or something more, perhaps, and I do not want the subject of my study to see me; not yet.

Lost legends have him as the Chalk Man, less a name but a descriptor; given for his white and ashen skin. Which is wrong, as it’s not skin, but bone. Bone so old that it crumbles, leaving a fine powder of dust, akin to chalk dust, on whatever he touches. Man is also wrong, as he is of no gender, nor even human, but, for lack of appropriate terminology, we will use the pronouns referring to the masculine throughout this text.

The lost legends — that are now found, if only to myself — are, by a human understanding, ancient, as the Chalk Man hasn’t been spoken of, written of, or likely even thought of, for centuries. His existence slowly being lost from the collective consciousness one life at a time. By the Chalk Man’s point of view, however, they are practically modern, having been written within the last millenium.

His purpose, in those legends, is ill defined, if simply not mentioned at all, which is a shame because his purpose is a very important one, that contains many roles. He is a king to some, a servant to others, sometimes a friend, sometimes an enemy, an angel, or a demon. His job, as it were, is to appear as the honest reflection of us all. A confusing, if not mysterious, job description I am aware. Let me try and make more sense of it.

Have you ever caught your own reflection and for a moment thought someone else was looking back at you? Perhaps you saw a monster, or a stranger, or a royal, or a saint. Just for a second. That was the Chalk Man. Or at least, that is the Chalk Man at work, and he has been doing this work for a very long time.

It is presumed that the Chalk Man was present when we were still walking around on all fours. Indeed, it is likely he was there when our ameba ancestors were first beginning to divide. He watched us, they say, the legends that are both ancient and modern, from his reflective surfaces, waiting for the day when we would gain a level of sentience that could recognise our own image.

Some of the legends, that I have hunted down in hidden cities that no longer have names, argue that the Chalk Man did more than watch; that he, just once, stretched out a bony arm from his reflective kingdom and altered the course of man; that it is due to him that we are so different from the rest of the animals that we share this planet with. What it is the Chalk Man did to achieve this is not written, and so this theory is to be taken with a pinch of salt…or chalk dust, as it were.

The first recorded encounter with the Chalk Man came some time after, when one of the ancient civilisations, the residents of one of those cities without names, first started writing things down. One such text wrote of an encounter whereby a local woman went to drink from the underground river that fueled the city, peered into the inky water, and saw the Chalk Man staring back at her. The woman, a weaver by the name of Oma, cried out, but did not flee. Instead, once her breath and heart were once more under her control, she crawled back to look at the water. Once more she saw the Chalk Man, bony and white, her own reflection nowhere to be seen. He did naught but watch young Oma, who, after deeming him not a threat, went to gather others to show them the chalk figure in the water. By the time she brought the crowd to the water’s edge, he was gone; her own reflection returned to her. It would only be later, after multiple appearances, that Oma’s story would be believed.

The reason why the Chalk Man simply watched Oma, and especially why he watched her in his own form, has been much argued over the many years by the forgotten scholars that once studied the Chalk Man. Some claimed that by seeing the Chalk Man as he truly is allowed Oma some gaining of knowledge outside of our understanding, and caused some great shift in her life, and on mankind as a whole; and indeed Oma did go on to live a remarkable life. Some claimed that he fell in love with Oma, and stole her reflection for those few short minutes to take as his Queen, only to find a reflection was no substitute for the real thing; this too, may well be the case. For myself, I think the Chalk Man was simply studying, seeing some final aspect of mankind’s heart so he could then go on to do his true work.

The work, as one of the old texts described it, was: “Purveyor of understanding and dealer of truths”. This is the most accurate description I have found. Simply, the Chalk Man shows you what you need to see. If you be good, but lacking in courage, you may see yourself momentarily in a reflective surface as a hero. If you be evil, but lacking in morals, you may see yourself as a monster. You may see an angel when you need hope. You may see a devil when you need fear. You may see your mother when she needs you to visit. And on it goes. The Chalk Man knows what you need to see and shows it to you. Often, after a viewing, you may find some of his bone dust on a shoe, or you shirt. This is the way to know if was a true showing. Or, so the texts say.

One text, the latest I’ve found, goes one step further. It claims that behind every reflective surface lies a kingdom, his kingdom, and if you do not heed the truth he offers you that he will reach out and take you there, never to return.

The next question, and the one most pressing to my own research, is why was knowledge of the Chalk Man lost? Why has he left our collective consciousness? Many of the the legends I’ve found barely describe the Chalk Man whenever they reference him, so sure were they that the reader knew of whom they spoke. So how is it that he is not even a mythological figure today? I do not know, but I expect to find out soon for I think he watches me.

Twice now I have had a glimpse of something else in my mirror. First, I am sure it was his own figure, white and silent, then the second time I saw myself, only with unbroken skin where my mouth should be. After both instances I searched the area for dust, and both times found it.

I have collected the dust and added it to a small vial, to be sent to the university along with this manuscript. I hope to send it this very afternoon. This will of course require me to leave my matte room and pass my own reflection, be it in a window or pool of water. I am ready. I have my questions. If I see him again I will not look away, but will instead ask why he withdrew from our world — as I am sure now the lost knowledge of his person was at his own design — and if he is likely to return. I hope he does, this world could do with a good hard look at itself.

One final note. It occurs to me that perhaps I have been…foolhardy, cataloging this history, if indeed the Chalk Man does want to stay hidden. So if you are reading this, it might be best to steer clear of mirrors for a while. You never know when he might be watching.

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Thanks for reading,

Damian

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January 3, 2018

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Music today comes from The Northern Folk, who I saw open for The East Pointers a few weeks back and was blown away by; not least because they are a ten piece band. Their sound was unique and folksy, utilising their many instruments, and with vocals to match. This one is called Stovetop Coffee

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Words written for the year: 2528

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Hello and welcome to 2018.

My 2017 culminated in a flurry of activity; appropriate, seeing how that’s how most of the year felt. It began with the arrival of Brother Jonathan from the distant shores of Austria, with my  future sister in law, Alexandra, on his arm. Their return home (at least, my home) is always a welcome one, but especially so this time, as it had been over a year since I held my brother in my arms. Things didn’t stop once all the hugging was caught up on though, as my other brother, the one they call Matthew, and I still had a half marathon to complete (as previously mentioned) I’m happy to say it went well. We started at six in the morning joined by our cousin Dominic, all of us fresh and chatty, and ended at just after eight, significantly less fresh and chatty. Two solid hours of running. The breakfast that followed felt well earned.

Christmas came next, spread out over two days to accommodate all the family. Many presents, drinks, food, and games meant the days had the special feel that holidays should, helped along by not having to go to work, or even plan out much beyond eating. This didn’t last long, however, as come boxing day, Jonathan, Alex, Holly and I, headed back to Melbourne to jump on a plane and fly over to the North Island of New Zealand. We were there for a wedding, and so our visit was a short one, four days, but full to the gills with driving, walking around beautiful places, a heavy dose of bananagrams (look it up), and of course, a wedding. It was the first time I had ever been to a wedding where I was a stranger to both the bride and groom, as they were friends of Holly made from her time living in London. It’s an odd thing to introduce yourself to someone whilst simultaneously congratulating them on the ceremony you’d just witnessed. Still, the night was a good one, and my lack of familiarity with the happy couple didn’t diminish the joy of celebration.

We got back to Australia just in time to celebrate the coming of the new year, more fun and family, and here we are; 2017 over.

It was an incredible year for me. I got engaged, traveled to Borneo, was nominated for awards, and had a book released with my writing buds, plus plenty more. All of it felt like moving closer to the mountain. It was, without doubt, one for the books.

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Now with 2017 in the rear view mirror it’s time to look ahead at 2018. This time last year I wrote about how I wanted to write every day, crossing off each successful day on a giant wall calendar as motivation. Here is how that calendar ended up:

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As you can see I had a rocky start, then managed to find my groove, with most of the blank spaces that followed either due to holidays or special events. I’m proud of that spread, but want to kick it up another notch this year. Which brings us to the first on my new years goals.

I wrote a few weeks ago about Brother Matthew’s impressive goal list for 2017. He had nine, which also happens to be his favourite number, and so for this year he’s given himself another nine. When he told me this I jokingly responded that as my favourite number is four (D is the fourth letter of the alphabet — younger me was very logical when it came to choosing a favourite number) then I only had to have four goals. The more I thought about it, the more I liked having a list of four goals for the new year. Four would fit well to the unofficial goals I already had in my mind, and if I wrote them down and defined them properly I was more likely to stick to them. So, using the S.M.A.R.T (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Results-focused, Time-bound) goal setting technique the Lady Holly uses with her students I wrote down my four goals for 2018.

The first, as alluded to earlier, is a writing one. Last year to get the daily cross off on the calendar I just had to write something, a single line would do the job, preferably more, but if that’s all I had then that would do. This year it’s not that simple, as my first goal is to write 600 words a day on average across the year. That ‘on average’ is important, because it means I can write excess and have words in lieu, or make up missed days later if I need to. I’m hoping the former is more the case. Usually I don’t like the idea of running-on goals and being able to make up for missed days later, because it can be too easy to use this as an excuse to be lazy and then have a insurmountable number to hit. To negate this I’m making it so I have to use my weekends to catch up on any word counts missed during the week, so that number doesn’t snowball on me if I start missing days. Instead of the wall calendar this year I have a spreadsheet with every day of the year written in one column and a word count column right next to it waiting to be filled. I’ll also keep a running log of the ‘words written for the year’ on every blog post, instead of the former ‘current chain of writing days’.

The second goal I stole from Brother Matthew’s own goal list; run 1000 km across the year. Another goal that requires consistency every week, but one I believe is achievable.

Goal number three is likewise stolen, and that is to read 25 books (or more) during the year. Far too often I waste time browsing on my computer, at either social media or who knows what, only to later lament that I never have time for reading. This year I want to flip that, less screen time, more page time.

These first three goals were easy, all being continuations of goals I already had, just better defined. But of course my favourite number isn’t three (my name doesn’t start with a C after all) and so I needed one more goal. After allowing my brain some time to marinate on it I decided I wanted it to be a photography based goal. I often take plenty of photos on holiday but want to get back into the habit of taking photos of everyday life as well. So, in order to achieve this, I’ve brushed the dust off my old blipfoto account, a site by which you add one photo a day, taken on that day. If you wish, you can follow along here.

That covers most of the main stuff, there are other things of course, like getting married to a girl called Holly, but one thing at a time, yeah?

Wish me luck.

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Remember, take a breath. Here we go again.

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Talk soon,

Damian

 

December 14, 2017

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Given the season it seems appropriate for today’s blog song to be a Christmas Carol. This rendition of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas comes from one of my favourites, Stu Larsen.

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Current chain of writing days: 24

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I didn’t know if today’s entry should go into the journal category or short fiction, because it’s a tale of my life but also involves me telling a made up story. It was quite the dilemma, I mean it was no Sophie’s choice, but still. In the end I went for the journal option…obviously.

So, the first thing you need to know about this entry is that twitter recently doubled its character allowance per tweet, increasing it from one hundred and forty to two hundred and eighty. The reason this is important is because a while ago I had the idea that I would tell a story through twitter, and not just tell a story, but also have it be interactive. The way I would do this would be to have a poll of alternative story options attached to every tweet that people would vote on to decide what happened next. Basically like a collective choose your own adventure. However, upon trying this I found the one hundred and forty character limit to be too restricting. I couldn’t get across enough information, or write in any enjoyable way, and it simply came across as stilted and unimaginative. I gave it up as not possible, at least, until the recent increase.

It turns out two hundred and eighty characters is just long enough for me to do what I wanted. Of course, I still had one issue,  if nobody voted my story would quickly hit a dead end. Luckily, that turned out not to be a problem. I threw out this initial tweet…

…and soon had the confirmation that I would have at least a dozen or so people to help me out, and I’m happy to say that number grew as the story went on.

Enough set up though, right? Here’s how it went…

(They stalemated me! I decided I had to do both)

It was an exceptionally fun experiment, one that received an even better reaction than I had hoped; speaking of — thank you to all my fellow twitterers who voted and in so doing helped me tell this tale, and to every one who sent me messages about it.

I’m now thinking of starting a separate twitter account for just this purpose, we’ll see.

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Remember, ideas are easy, it’s the doing that’s hard.

Talk soon

Damian

 

December 8, 2017

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I thought I’d share some writing music today as the blog song. This one is called Quintessence and is from the composer Theodore Shapiro, feature as part of the original score for the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Really beautiful track and one that gets my emotions rising and falling every time.

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Current chain of writing days: 19

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The other day I logged onto facebook only to be greeted with a “memory” — a series of photos that were added on the same date several years ago. It made me angry, and at first I didn’t know why. It wasn’t that the memory was a bad one (who would ever share photos of a negative event on their facebook?) but still, it irked me. I clicked on the three dots in the top corner and selected ‘see less often’, and tried to move on. But I couldn’t, and, after a few days of thinking about it, I think I’ve figured out the reason for my frustration.

The internet is an attention devouring machine, this is not news, nor, at its core, is it a bad thing. There’s plenty out there that’s beneficial or educational or that allows us to connect with others. Great. And, for the most part, we have control over our own actions and can choose where to isolate our attention. For the most part. It’s the part we don’t have control over — let’s call it instincts, or subconscious, or lizard brain — that I’m concerned with. It’s the part of us that gets addicted to the dopamine hit when receiving a like, or that’s wired to respond to the colour red (originally for poisonous animals, then traffic lights and warning signs, and now notifications and email alerts), or the part of us that can’t help to relive the past in order to learn from it and alter our actions in the present. It’s when websites purposely recognise and then abuse these instincts to keep us scrolling and clicking indefinitely, that I think it becomes a bad thing.

Let’s focus on the living in the past thing. Any kind of zen master or mindful consultant talks about “living in the present”, which I translate as slowing down your brain for a second and actually focusing on what’s going on around you; taking it in, and finding the enjoyment of that moment in real time rather than later in your memories (or photos). It’s the same reason meditation exists, and has for centuries, to force that action. We are hardwired to either relive the past or consider possible future outcomes, both of which I believe have sprung up as survival instincts; for learning and preparing, respectively. Which is fine except we’re too good at it. We move past the point where we’ve learnt what we needed to learn or prepared as best we can, into obsession, fixation, and worry. And it’s tiring. I’ve found myself wanting to stop thinking about a thing, either past or future, and I can’t, my brain just keeps cycling over it again and again. Which, of course, is where meditation and consciously living in the present come in; to break that cycle. It’s psychology as much as anything else.

But all this is my long winded way of explaining why the facebook memories thing annoyed me so much. It can be hard enough keeping your mind in the present and maintain control of your attention, and this new addition to the facebook algorithm seems purposely designed to take advantage of this. And look, I have no doubt some people love it when these memories pop up, and I too like looking at past photos, but only when I’ve purposely chosen to, not because facebook has told me to. Of course the simple solution is don’t go on facebook, except it’s not that simple. We use facebook for a whole bunch of different things — including news, communication, and event coordination — so if I log on for one of these reasons I can’t help but see either the memories or one of the many other ways the site is designed to grab and hold onto my attention.

Ultimately, I don’t have a good solution, but at least I figured out why seeing past photos of myself made me so angry. In the meantime I’ll just keep clicking ‘see less often’ and hope I actually do.

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In other news the Lord Mayor’s Creative Writing awards, which my novella The Case of Henry and the Hamster was shortlisted for, were held yesterday. Unfortunately I did not win, but I can’t deny it was still very cool to be in the running, receive a certificate, shake some hands, and get my photo taken.

Hopefully next time I can also walk away with a win, but the only way to do that is to keep writing, so that’s what I’m going to go do.

Talk soon

Damian

Crossing the Divide

cake_wormhole_by_alienphysique-d5n64pmPhoto Credit: Alienphysique

Chaos bloomed behind me. A literal ending of the world. I paid it no mind. I instead stood at the threshold to the divide and stared deep into its turquoise depths and considered all the possibilities laid out before me. I could go anywhere. To any point within the known universe, or, if I was brave enough, into the unknown.

I went to the one spot I was always going to go. I went home.

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I stepped out of the cold of the divide and into the heat of a thirty five degree day in Melbourne, Earth. Brown grass crunched beneath my feet, scratching my skin. When had I lost my shoes? I wondered, more with curiosity than any feeling of concern.

‘Bernice,’ a voice said from behind me. I turned, my mind still a whirl after passing through the divide, and saw a woman looking at me, a house behind her. Her forehead was creased with worry and her eyes leaked tears over her dark skin.

‘Nora,’ I said with a smile, not really sure who she was but happy to see her.

‘What? Where?’ she started, but her words became drowned in a sea of heavy tears. She rushed towards me and threw her arms around my shoulders, burying her head into my shirt. I put my arms around her.

‘My sister.’ I said, the fact returning to me.

She pulled back and looked into my still smiling face and in a rush asked, ‘What the fuck happened to you? Where have you been? Are you okay?’ A blinked against the barrage of questions as a flurry of knowledge drifted down from somewhere in the upper reaches of my mind like an autumn tree losing its leaves. The knowledge settled and returned me to me. I was Bernice Jarrin, I had crossed the divide.

I looked into Nora’s eyes feeling more like myself. It must have showed because some of the worry fell away from her face. ‘Yeah. Yes. I’m okay,’ I said. ‘As for what happened, I…’ I trailed off, not sure how to explain it.

‘Why don’t we go inside,’ she suggested. ‘Get away from this heat.’

‘Actually, can I take you somewhere?’ I said. ‘There’s something I can show you that might provide context as I answer your questions.’

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‘I don’t know what I’m looking at?’ Nora said, her voice echoing through the large and mostly empty warehouse.

‘It’s…well, it doesn’t really have a name yet. I’ve just been calling it the UD. Unknown Device. I, well, I built it.’

She ran her hand across one of the three curved pillars of brass, then gave a hard flick to the dome on top, causing it to let out a hollow ding that hung in the room. ‘You built it but it’s unknown?’ She asked.

‘No. Well, yes. I built it, but it’s not my design.’

‘So who’s design is it?’

‘I don’t know.’

She turned to look at me, eyebrow raised, all sass. It was good to see her usual manner had returned after the short car ride. ‘You realise how unsatisfying these answers are, don’t you?’

‘Right, sorry. It’s from a design I found.’

‘That’s it? Bernice, I swear to god, you are the worst story teller.’

‘Sorry. Sorry. It’s been a long…how long was I actually gone for?’

‘Just over a week,’ she said, some timidity returning to her voice. ‘The police thought you might have been killed. Either that or you’d ran off somewhere. We should probably call them. Let them know they can call off their investigation.’

‘Umm, it might be best to hold off on that for now.’ I said.

Nora whipped her head toward me, eyes penetrating, and I felt the desire to rub my hands together. ‘Why? You planning on leaving again?’

I did rub my hands together. ‘Well, possibly. It might be necessary to-’

‘No, I don’t want to hear any wells, or possiblies, or mights. Tell me straight where the hell have you been?’

‘Luyten b.’

‘What? The exoplanet?’

‘That’s right.’

‘How is that even-? ….and it imploded. It’s been on the news.’

‘Really? For how long?’

‘A couple of days.’

‘So, the crossing isn’t instantaneous. Interesting.’

‘Bernice! What is going on?’

‘Right. The machine, the UD. It’s, for lack of a better word, a transporter.  But it’s also so much more than that. It took me to Luyten b, I watched the world implode. It was…beautiful, terrifying. I, I really don’t have words for it.’

‘I don’t care about the description, Bernice. What do you mean it took you to Luyten b? That’s impossible. That’s…holy shit, I need to sit down.’

I dragged over two old stools I had found by a dumpster when I was first putting together this workspace, and, after a look of reluctance, Nora sat in one. I took the other and spoke.

‘I’m sorry, I really am doing this badly, I know it sounds crazy, but that’s why I wanted to show you the UD, so you could see that this is real. This device, it created a divide between here and Luyten b. All I had to do was step through and I was there. The planet was habitable, just like they thought it might be. I could breathe and it had this kind of odd grass that felt like silk against my feet. Well, at least until it all imploded.’

‘How? How can this device do that?’ She said, pointing at the statue of brass. ‘That’s science fiction, I mean…how?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘You don’t know? You built it!’

‘Yes, but from a set of instructions, the science of it is…unexplained.’

‘Okay. So where did these instructions come from?’

‘Space.’

‘Space?’

‘Originally, although that’s not where I got them from. I found them in one of Marie Moreau’s notebooks.’

‘Okay, and who is she?’

I rolled my eyes. ‘Seriously, Mona? I’ve told you about her a million times.’

‘You talk about a lot of old people!’

‘My thesis was based off her work! My career is based off her work! I went to France last year to visit her ancestral home!’

‘Oh, the one who went crazy.’

I sighed. ‘Yes, but that’s the least of what she-’

‘Wait. If you got the instructions from one of her notebooks how come no one’s ever discovered this before?’

My cheeks flushed. ‘Because no one knows this particular notebook exists. I noticed an image of a book hidden in one of the many paintings she did of her garden. So, last year, on my trip, I had a look, and sure enough in the hollow of this elm tree was a notebook–

‘And you stole it?’

‘I discovered it!’

‘Bernice, come on. Shouldn’t it go to her family trust? Or some scientific society, or something?’

‘I am her scientific society. There is no one else on this planet who knows her work as well as I do. Most academics simply think of her as crazy, dismissing her work entirely. Trust me, the best hands the notebook could possibly be in are mine.’

‘Okay, putting aside your theft for the moment, how is it that you don’t understand the science? If you have the notebook wouldn’t it explain it?’

I blushed again and looked away, knowing Mona wouldn’t like what I was about to say next. ‘Well, the notebook’s a bit hard to understand. It came from later in her career so a lot of it is more, ah, raving, than coherent thought, or written so messily that it can’t be read. But the instructions were clear, as were the descriptions of how she got them.’

Nora gave me one of her classic hard looks. ‘So, let me get this straight. You found the notebook of a woman who was clearly losing her mind, in which was the blueprint for a device that the crazy lady said she got from space, and you decide to build it? Not to mention go to a planet that you thought was habitable. You realise how dangerous that was? How irresponsible?’

‘Yes. Well, no. More risky than irresponsible. But being a scientist is about taking risks.’

‘Controlled risks, that you tell your sister about. Not hide up in a secret warehouse somewhere like some mad doctor. I thought you were dead, Bernice. Hell, if this device had been designed for something else, if anything had gone wrong, you could have been.’ Her voice had risen to a shout, and there were tears in her eyes. Her breath was coming fast and I realised mine was too. I took a deep breath and apologised.

‘You’re right,’ I said. ‘I…I should have told you. I just, I didn’t know how to. It was all so crazy and exciting and…I was selfish. I’m sorry.’ I climbed off the stool and hugged her. After a second she returned it.

‘You’re all I have, you know. Ever since we lost Mum and Dad…well, I thought I was alone.’

‘I’m sorry.’ I repeated. ‘It was dumb.’

She pulled out of the hug and looked at me. ‘But you’re planning on using it again.’ She said, more statement than question.

‘Not without you.’ I told her, meaning it.

‘You want me to go to an alien planet with you?’ She asked.

‘Yes, I mean, sure, why not? There are still a number of planets that have been discovered that scientists are confident are habitable. We could visit any one of them. Be the first sisters in space.’

She wiped a tear from her eye as she shook her head. ‘Bernie, you know how crazy that sounds. You don’t know that this device will even work a second time. And what if the scientists are wrong? What if these planets aren’t habitable.’

‘Like I said, the UD can do more than just transport. Moreau wrote that it also provides a protective barrier around you that contains the properties of wherever you’re transporting from.  Basically, a little pocket of Earth. And I think that’s just the start of what it can do. It’s not as dangerous as you think, Nora, trust me.’

‘And if I say no? What then? Will you still leave?’

‘No,’ I said, but with a moment’s hesitation.

‘Fine,’ she said, hearing it. ‘But we’re doing it right. Bring supplies, plan ahead, and get you some shoes. And I need to know everything I can about this device. Just explain it in as non-crazy-smart person as you can. For starters, how does it even work?’

‘Like this,’ I said, and placed my palm wide over the dome. With a twist clockwise, turquoise bloomed around us.

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Thanks for reading

Damian

November 29, 2017

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Another tune from Kim Churchill for today’s blog song because the album’s so good that I’m still listening to it. This one’s called Weight Falls.

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Current chain of writing days: 9

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I’m currently in training for a half marathon. Despite a previous resolve to do one a year, indefinitely — which I have admittedly only done for the past two years — I didn’t think I was going to do one this year. Dropping the ball on the third time round wouldn’t have been great but I was okay with it because I knew the cause, writing. Most of my not-at-work/not-socialising time this year has gone into writing, a fact that I’m pleased with, and would have accepted as a reasonable excuse to shirk past-Damian’s running resolve. Add to that that training for a half marathon is inevitably a time consuming endeavour involving building up your stamina over weeks to be able to handle longer and longer runs, which end up going for hours at a time. Like just about everybody I know, I felt like I have no free time, and so cramming hours of running every week into an already bloated calendar seemed impossible.

Luckily my brother, Matthew, stepped up to coerce and convince me to think otherwise. Well, all he really did was send me a text that said he was planning on running a half marathon and would appreciate it if I could do it with him, but it was the motivation I needed to ensure I didn’t break my streak, especially as I was keen to support Matt’s own efforts.

Let me tell you about my brother. Not only is he an excellent teacher and family man, he’s also someone who when he sets himself at a task gives it his all. At the start of the year he wrote a list of 2017 goals on a blackboard in his garage. He purposely chose the word ‘goals’ over ‘resolutions’ because he felt that you could only ever succeed or fail at a resolution, whereas goals could be changed depending on circumstances, and therefore still be achieved even if not in the initial form. How fucking great is that. It’s pragmatism at its best. It’s also just about everything you need to know about Matthew.

Two of his yearly goals were running based. He’s been running for years, off and on, much the same as I have, but he’d been more off than on at the end of last year and so to counter that he decided he would attempt to: 1) Run a thousand kilometers across the year, and 2) complete a half marathon. Pretty lofty goals for someone who hadn’t been running consistently for some time. Hell, lofty even for someone who had. To complete the thousand kilometers he would have to run at least twenty kilometers per week. He started out strong, hitting this target through the hotter months and into autumn but then slowed down come winter, until the point where he knew he wouldn’t achieve his initial goal. So, he altered it; reduced the number, and ensured he would keep going rather than quit altogether. Pragmatism in practice. I still love it. He also decided to double down on the goal to complete a half marathon, but, it being later in the year, and, with the longest distance he had ever ran previously being ten kilometers, Matt knew he needed extra motivation and so the message to me was sent.

Which brings us to last Sunday, we’re halfway through our training (four weeks into the eight we’ve given ourselves to get half marathon ready) and appropriately we’re about to run twelve kilometers (a half marathon being just under double that). It’s early in the morning — to avoid the heat, which is still present anyway, although more in the form of humidity thanks to some recent rain — and we’re standing on the Maribyrnong river running track ready to go. We click the button on our watches to measure our distance and we begin. We chat as we go, probably not a good idea as it uses precious oxygen our moving bodies are desperate for, but this is also our catch up time, and so on we talk between breaths. At two kilometers Matt’s watch beeps (as he’d set it to do) and he says something to me that I really liked, the very something that made me write this particular blog, in fact. He tells me that in his classroom they’ve been practicing celebrating every victory, basically that celebrating a completed goal is great but to also acknowledge hitting the milestones on the way to that goal. He then held up his hand and, still running, we gave each other a high five. Every additional two kilometers his watch would beep and we would slap our increasingly sweaty palms together, every victory celebrated. As mentioned, Matt’s previous longest run was ten kilometers, so as we stepped over the ten kilometer mark and into the ten point zero one kilometer mark Matt threw his arms into the air and let out a whoop. And why shouldn’t he? He’d just run the furthest he’d ever run before; it wasn’t the twelve kilometer goal we’d set for the day but it was surely an accomplishment well worth celebrating. By the time we did hit twelve there were more whoops, more high fives, and then the ultimate celebration, breakfast.

What I like most about Matt’s goal adapting and every-victory-celebrating is that both of these ideas actually help motivate you to keep going, and ensure you feel success and pride along the way. Which you should. If you set out to go for a ten kilometer run but only do five, you shouldn’t berate yourself for not running ten but rather celebrate that you went for a run at all. You just ran five kilometers, well done you.

Of course, this doesn’t apply to just running. It can, and in my opinion, should, be used anytime you set yourself a goal. For myself, I plan to use in for my writing. If all I have in me on any given day is to write one sentence, well then at least I wrote that sentence, and I’ll celebrate that fact.

Feeling like you’ve failed is a poor motivator. Celebrate every victory. Matt did, and last Sunday he ran the longest distance he ever had before, and by Christmas, he’ll likely have doubled it.

Talk soon

Damian

Up For It

17-NerveCells-Rex

The procedure was experimental. Well, maybe experimental isn’t the right word. Unproven. It had been proven now though, all thanks to my agreement to be a case study, but there’ve been some complications. No, side-effects is probably a better word. Oh man, I never used to care about words. 

I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis on my thirtieth birthday. Literally on the day. I blew out the candles of my birthday cake in the hospital cafeteria and let me tell you they are not exactly festive places.

Sclerosis, if you’re Greek’s a bit rusty — and mine used to be non-existent — means scars. The multiple scarring the name refers to takes place within the central nervous system. On the nerve cells themselves. The protective coating that surrounds the neurons actually shears away. The hard truth is there is currently no known cure.

When I found out the reason I’d been having trouble holding cups lately, not to mention my bladder, was due to multiple sclerosis the doctor also told me that it affects roughly three times as many women as men; as though knowing I shared this disease with all my fellow double X chromosome sisters was somehow comforting. It wasn’t. It just further proved we get the rougher end of the deal. When he mentioned that there was a more radical treatment available though, that got my attention.

That’s what my procedure was, a treatment. Not like a mad scientist harnessing lightning from the sky kind of treatment, but still, it was a bit out there.

Look, I’ve never exactly been a model student, or employee, or person, really. I’ve had a few scraps with the law and done some things I’m not proud of, and maybe haven’t achieved a whole lot, but that didn’t mean I was ready to roll over and let this disease have my body. So, when the Doc said ‘stem cell transplant’ I said ‘sure, I’m up for it’, without really bothering to think it through. Honestly, to my non-medical school trained brain it seemed pretty straight forward. You have these stem cells, which are kind of a blank slate capable of turning into any other type of cell, repairing or replacing damaged cells in the process. So, a donor offers them up for whatever reason, my crappy nerve cells get repaired or replaced, and I’m free to spend my thirty first birthday not in a hospital. Simple.

Maybe simple’s not the right word. Straight-forward. Anyway, not so straight-forward, it turns out. Although even the doctor’s didn’t know that.

My donor’s name was Rupert Hellings. The hospital insisted I meet with him beforehand. Personally, I would have preferred to have taken his stem cells and been on my way, but he was a nice enough guy. Bit older, real academic type. Professor of linguistics at the University of Melbourne, whatever that entails. His wife had had multiple sclerosis and, while it wasn’t what killed her, he said he wanted to help others avoid what she had gone through. Like I said, nice guy; although he had this habit of always cracking his knuckles, drove me crazy.

Anyway, the procedure went fine. Stem cells were transplanted and I stopped having issues with vertigo and motor control. For all intents and purposes I didn’t have multiple sclerosis anymore. Good, right?

Then it started. The side-effects. Little things to begin with. Like I started correcting people’s speech. ‘It’s Holly and I, not me and Holly.’ Things like that. I just couldn’t stop myself. I would hear someone say something incorrect and I would have to correct them. I’ve never been that type of girl, and my friends aren’t the kind of people that like being corrected, or who have much of a grasp on the nuances of language. Basically, I was correcting them a lot. Like, constantly. They stopped inviting me to things, and I could hardly blame them. I was getting fed up with it too.

Then it got worse. I would see a word, just any normal word, written on a sign or a poster and I wouldn’t be able to stop thinking about it. I would become captivated with it. No, not captivated. Obsessed. I would think about the different sounds that made up the word. How it could be used in different contexts. I would begin to wonder about the history of the word and have to look it up, which would inevitably lead me to some new word I would become obsessed over. It was weird, it was wrong, it wasn’t me.

When I started cracking my knuckles, it all fell into place. I realised I was cracking them whenever I was lost in thought, usually over some word or another. Like I said, cracking knuckles drove me crazy, but for some reason doing it now felt right. Then I thought of the only other person I knew who cracked their knuckles in that way, the only other person who was likely to get obsessed over words, and my gut dropped.

What could I do? I knew what what would happen if I went back to the hospital. They would be fascinated by the whole thing. The idea that a stem cell recipient might take on the personality traits of the donor? C’mon, I wouldn’t be leaving that hospital anytime soon. They’d want to do so many tests and experiments on me that every birthday for the next thirty years would likely be spent in that hospital cafeteria. I decided instead to pay my donor a visit.

+ + + +

He was sitting at his desk when I stormed into his office. Universities, it turns out, are pretty easy places to just walk into. He looked up in shock, then pleased recognition at the sight of me. He didn’t stay pleased for long.

‘You’ve infected me,’ I yelled.

‘What?’ he asked.

‘Your knuckle cracking, your word fetish. I’ve got all of them.’ I realise I probably could have been a bit clearer in my language but to be honest I was furious and scared. My body was being taken over. To his credit he figured it out pretty quickly.

‘Wait. Are you saying you’ve somehow taken on some of my mannerisms through the stem cell transplant?’ He asked. Smart guy.

‘That’s exactly what I’m saying and I want you to undo it right now!’

He ignored this statement, too caught up in the implications of what I was saying. He stood and started pacing around the room.

‘That’s amazing. My traits are expressing in you. Part of me is in you,’ he said thinking it through. ‘If its existence can be proven then…’

‘Then you and I would never leave a hospital or laboratory ever again,’ I finished for him. That got his attention.

‘Yes. Yes, I suppose you’re right,’ He returned to his seat. ‘This is all a lot to take in.’

‘You think? Try being on the other end of it!’

‘Right. Tell me, what is it exactly you’ve been experiencing?’

‘Words, man. I can’t stop thinking about words. I’m bloody fascinated by them. Like, right now, I can’t stop thinking about the word fascinated. Why do we use it? What’s its history?’

‘Oh, well that’s very interesting actually-’

‘Stop,’ I say. ‘I don’t want to hear it. Well, I do, but not right now. The point is you need to think of a way to get you out of me.’

‘I- I don’t think I can. My stem cells aren’t even my stem cells anymore. They’re your nerve cells. Even if we did go to the hospital I doubt they could reverse it. They wouldn’t know which neurons had been altered, and from the sounds of it it’s affecting your whole central nervous system, all the way up to your brain. I’m sorry but I think you’re stuck like this.’ He gave a tight lipped smile and raised his eyebrows apologetically. It didn’t do a whole lot to comfort me.

I collapsed into the chair opposite him and put my head in my hands. Was it even my head anymore? It didn’t feel like it.

‘You know, it might not be all bad,’ he said.

‘What do you mean?’ I asked, not really caring for whatever pleasantry, no, platitude, he was about to give me.

‘Well, you said you were fascinated by words, even wanted to hear the history of the word fascinated. I take it that means you’re getting at least some level of enjoyment from the study of language?’

‘Yes,’ I said, feeling ruefull, because the truth was he was right. It had alienated me from my friends and made me feel less like myself, but I had also never had such purpose before.

‘Okay. Good. Well, you could always apply to study here. I run the Bachelor’s Degree in Linguistics. I could ensure you get a place next semester.’

Me, study? I had certainly never thought of that before.

‘And you would teach me about words?’ I asked.

‘I would,’ he said, smiling.

+ + + +

I took the professor up on his offer. I mean, what else was I going to do? Part of me feels like I’m almost his daughter now, anyway. No, daughter’s not right. Clone. Either way, I decided I’ve just got to be up for it, see where it takes me. Or, at least I think I did.

++++

Thanks for reading

Damian